It was so hot beads of sweat crawled down my temple.

It wasn’t the heat of the sun. It wasn’t the colossal crowds — thousands of street food aficionados, crammed in a tiny city block in the Mission celebrating La Cocina’s very first San Francisco Street Food Festival. It wasn’t the barbecue grills or the deep fryers, either, all cranked up for the festivities, spitting out skewers, tacos, and funnel cakes incessantly.

Instead, it was the fiery harissa on Mourad Lahlou’s Moroccan taco flatbreads that made me break a sweat and yelp in delight. The beautifully braised beef cheeks and the spicy harissa melted in my mouth and set it on fire. The crunchy strands of summer squash gave a fleeting relief from the numbing spice but it was the sweet mint tea that finally extinguished it. It was deliciously fiery hot.

Moroccan Tacos

Harissa’s heat reminds me of siling labuyo, feisty cayenne peppers I grew up with back home but with hints of garlic, cumin and coriander. Harissa is a Moroccan spicy chili paste made from red chili peppers. It is served as a condiment, or stirred in couscous, soups, and tagines — the classic, rich, and fragrant Moroccan stews. Traditionally, tagines are served in the pot where it’s cooked, which is also called a tagine. The traditional tagine consists of a shallow, round dish and a tall, conical lid, which is made entirely of clay and sometimes painted or glazed. The cover is so shaped so that moisture returns back to what is being stewed.

Tagine

I channeled my inner nomad last weekend and made harissa from scratch and cooked my very first tagine. I wish I could write about a fabulous weekend outing to Marrakech, where I feasted on snails and kefta kebabs and brought home a traditional tagine I bought at the souqs in the square. But it was, instead, a trip to my favorite Sur La Table in the Ferry Building where I bought a glazed terra cotta tagine. There were fancier ones like Le Creuset’s but I thought I’d give this inexpensive one a try first and see how my Moroccan cooking skills fared before I fully committed to a loftier vessel. The tagine was stamped Made in Portugal at the bottom, which made me feel a little more confident about my purchase. Then I spotted a tiny hole at the top of the lid, which was another sign it was the real deal. Most authentic tagines, I read, have a small hole to release some of the steam, so that it doesn’t try to escape at the seam between the base and the lid. My new tagine did not come with any instructions but came with a label on the box, almost inconspicuous, which directed me to soak the tagine in water for twelve hours and to dry it completely before using. And so I did.

I sought the help of international food and cookbook writer Ghillie Başan for my Moroccan recipes. Making harissa was straightforward but required a bit of brawn to pound the peppers into a perfect paste. I used ancho chilies and made a milder harissa, considering my unremarkable tolerance to heat. For a hotter harissa, cayenne and chile de árbol are recommended.

How to Make Harissa and Harissa-Rubbed Couscous

The tagine, I must admit, intimidated me since I had never cooked in a clay pot before. It intimidated me even more after I read Jen Steff’s blog at Chicago Foodie and her not-so-pleasant tagine experience. Jen writes,

“The bottom of the tagine cracked completely through, draining the broth onto my oven, counters and floor! I wasn’t sure what went wrong: did I cook at too high a temperature, should I have done something to prepare the tagine before hand, was this more of a decorative/serving dish…”

Stanford would be delighted to have tasty tagine broth on the floor but I surely would not. Jen later found out that (1) she did not soak the tagine in water, which I did; and (2) she browned the meat in the tagine on a stove-top over high heat and kept the heat on high when she simmered it, which I promised myself not to do. The great secret of an authentic tagine, Başan writes, is to simmer the ingredients over low heat, which makes everything deliciously moist and tender.

I made a classic lamb tagine with Medjool dates, almonds and pistachios. It is a traditional date and nut tagine, which is a favorite at Moroccan weddings and feasts. I simmered the lamb slowly in a mixture of turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and onions for almost two hours. I added the dates, simmered it for a little while longer and then added the pan-fried almonds and pistachios.

I piled up a pyramid of harissa-rubbed couscous, flattened out the peak, formed a well and ladled the lamb tagine on top, just like they do in Morocco. The lamb was impeccably moist and tender. The tagine, sweet and fragrant. The harissa, mildly spicy. My rich Moroccan stew paired very well with a light refreshing salad of cubed honey dew melons sprinkled with mint. It was a memorable first Moroccan meal.

For now, a trip to magical Marrakech would have to wait. And while I dream of sitting in a cafe in Djemma el Fna, enjoying dates and sipping mint tea, I have my new tagine to keep me company in the kitchen — a whole new world of cooking to explore.

Tagine mis en place

Lamb Tagine

Harissa Recipe
Recipe by Ghillie Başan, makes a 1/4 cup

8 dried red chilies, ancho or New Mexico, seeded
2 to 3 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/4 cup olive oil

Put the chilies in a bowl and pour over enough warm water to cover them. Let them soak for 1 hour. Drain and squeeze out any excess water. Using a mortar and pestle, pound them to a paste with the garlic and salt (or whizz them in a food processor). Beat in the cumin and coriander and bind with the olive oil.

Store the paste in a sealed jar in the refrigerator with a thin layer of olive oil floating on top. It will keep for a month.

Lamb Tagine with Dates, Almonds, and Pistachios Recipe
Recipe adapted from Ghillie Başan, makes 4 servings

1 Tbsp ghee, or olive oil with a pat of butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 lb lean lamb, from the shoulder, neck, or leg, cut into bite size pieces
4 oz moist, ready-to-eat, pitted Medjool dates
1/2 Tbsp dark honey
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp harissa
1/2 Tbsp olive oil
1 to 2 Tbsp blanched almonds
1 to 2 Tbsp shelled pistachios
fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

Heat the ghee in a tagine or heavy-based caseerole dish. Stir in the onions and saute until golden brown. Stir in the turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon. Toss in the meat, making sure it is coated in the spice mixture. Pour in enough water to almost cover the meat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer gently for roughly 1-1/2 hours.

Add the dates and stir in the honey. Cover with a lid again and simmer for another 30 minutes. Season with salt and lots of black pepper.

Heat the olive oil with the butter in a small pan. Stir in the almonds and pistachios and cook until they begin to turn golden brown. Scatter the nuts over the lamb and dates, add some harissa, and sprinkle with parsley.

  • http://www.momfoodproject.com Serene

    I am constantly delighted by your posts. Thanks for this! I spent a week in Morocco when I was a child, and I can just imagine eating this there.

  • http://www.caseyangelova.com Casey Angelova

    A beautiful tagine. You make me want to book a trip right now! Best of luck in round 2!

  • http://lawyerloveslunch.com Lawyer Loves Lunch

    This post is just so vibrant, I feel like I’m transported to Morocco! Which is a good thing since I don’t think I’m travelling there any time soon :) You’ve definitely got my vote for round 2 :)

  • http://www.sippitysup.com sippitysup

    Marvelous take on a super classic. The recipe and these pics certainly qualify you in y mind. GREG

  • http://TheWifeOfADairyman.blogspot.com The Wife of a Dairyman

    Your dish looks fantastic! Being Portuguese, I like that your tagine is from Portugal…I just love all pottery from Portugal, I think it’s made really well. Good luck to you in the competition! I’m sure you’ll go far!

  • randy

    Tagines are extremely popular in France because of the large population of people from the Magreb. I went through my Moroccan phase a couple of years ago and have tons of books back in US I can share with you on tagines when we return… Your photos are really fabulous. Wish I had your eye and photography talent…

  • http://www.authenticsuburbangourmet.blogspot.com Lisa { AuthenticSuburbanGourmet }

    Jun – what an absolutely beautiful post! You have inspired me to tackle Moroccan cuisine. Best of luck to you with the contest!!!

  • http://www.moonglowgardens.wordpress.com Annapet

    I’ve been waiting for this post! Congratulations on moving on to the next level! Now you know I’m drying those ‘Poblanos’! Ang galing-galing mo talaga!

  • http://spicygreenmango.blogspot.com Spicy Green Mango

    Hi Jun,

    Wonderful to meet you! I love this post! The photos are nothing less than extraordinary and I’ve always wanted to cook in a tagine! Great job!

  • http://www.amykim.com/whatsfordinner Amy K.

    As always, a great post. I love the way you write and you photos are beautiful.

    I am *almost* inspired to buy a tagine after reading this post, but do I really need another pot in the kitchen? :-) So hard to resist….so hard to resist…

  • http://feedingmaybelle.blogspot.com maybelles mom

    I am inspired to take the tagine down from the shelf and actually use it. yeah for 10 year old wedding gifts.

  • http://trissalicious.com/ Trissa

    Your tagine has dates, almonds and pistachios!?! You’ve definitely won me over Jun.

  • http://psychosomaticaddictinsane.wordpress.com iya

    interesting ingredients! too bad they are not readily available here. :(

  • http://lemonsandanchovies.wordpress.com/ Jean

    You knocked this one out of the ball park, Jun. I was just eyeing a jar of harissa at the market yesterday and here you make your own! I’ve made chicken tagine before but not from an actual tagine. Very well done but I didn’t expect anything else from you. I already voted so I can see your challenge #3 post. :-)

  • http://kitchen-confidante.com Liren

    Jun, you always continue to inspire me. What a gorgeous post! I have ALWAYS wanted to cook with a tagine – perhaps this is the kick in the butt I need!

  • http://ootkfoodiefan.blogspot.com Out of the Kitchen

    Wow!!! As always — gorgeous photos! Now I want to buy myself a tangine!

  • http://togetherinfood.wordpress.com/ Stephanie M.

    Beautiful photos as always and thanks for sharing the harissa recipe! Good luck in round #2–just voted for you.

  • http://www.delishhh.com Delishhh

    I did Moroccan too, nice post. Loved the falvors.

  • http://umommy.blogspot.com/ Sharon (umommy)

    love the photography! I’m jealous you had a tagine! I would love to try making another one with the real deal. Good luck!

  • http://www.riceandwheat.com angi

    Gorgeous, gorgeous photos combined with excellent writing makes this an absolute joy to read. I loved this post, Jun, and I also remember that Aziza flatbread at the Street Food Festival last year! It was the highlight of that year’s festival, hands-down. So neat that you were there too. And thanks for letting me know where to get a cheap but well-made tagine – I’ve always wanted to buy one because I love the way they look.

  • http://onlinepastrychef.wordpress.com Jenni

    What a beautiful post, and a truly worthy entry to advance to Round 3! Best of luck; you’ve certainly got one of my votes!

  • http://zencancook.com zenchef

    Let it be known that i am a big fan of your photography. Clean, sharp and “to the point” . I love it!
    And this lamb tagine looks amazing. Really great recipe. I can almost imagine all the delicious smells as it simmered on the stove. You’ve got my vote!

  • http://www.sarahthebear.com Sarah the Bear

    I give up–your blog is amazing! Your flatbreads look divine, and I’ve been looking for a good harissa recipe, so thank you! Thanks also for the vote–right back atcha!

  • http://willowbirdbaking.wordpress.com Julie @ Willow Bird Baking

    Gorgeous dish, writing, and photos! You have a vote from me!

  • http://dishbytrish.com Trish

    You are very brave for using a tagine. I’ve always wanted to cook with one. The harissa looks so beautiful; it’s so rich in color. I love the ingredients in this dish – pistashios, chilis, garlic, coriander, dates, almonds – yum! Wonderful choice and great post.

  • http://www.youfedababychili.com/ Ben

    Settling in with a glass of wine and some Challenge 2 posts. Yours was first. I love the passion with which you write, and the images, as always are breathtaking! Great entry, Jun.

  • http://foodalogue.com Joan Nova

    Another nice entry with great presentation. I’m voting.

  • http://www.ztastylife.com/ Amelia from Z Tasty Life

    your Harissa looks great!
    you have one of my votes. (See my entry here: http://www.foodbuzz.com/project_food_blog/challenges/2/view/869)

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com Daily Spud

    Breathtaking (and I don’t just mean from the heat of the harissa). Absolutely worth voting for.

  • http://www.lickmyspoon.com @lickmyspoon

    Was the Aziza tent serving this at the last SF Street Food Festival? I didn’t hear anything about what they were serving (I mostly heard about Roli-Roti).

    Love your photos, can’t wait to see what’s next. You’ve got our vote!

    Lick My Spoon

  • http://thesmartkitchenblog.com Sarah @ The Smart Kitchen

    I am thoroughly impressed!

  • http://tanglednoodle.blogspot.com Tangled Noodle

    What a fantastic post of a marvelous dish! Congratulations on moving forward in Project Food Blog – you are most definitely a top contender. Can’t wait to see your next challenge entry. Just voted!

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  • http://www.junbelen.com Jun Belen

    Thank you so much everyone for the wonderful notes. I could not say thank you enough.

    Jun

  • Melanie

    wow! this is gorgeous! what was the brand of tagine that you used? you said it was inexpensive…

  • http://www.cardiacdelight.com Jake Speed

    Nice post and great pics. Very inspiring indeed. I am looking forward to make my first lamb tagine as well.

  • http://heatherinsf.wordpress.com Heather in SF @HeatherHAL

    Hi Jun,

    It’s nice to “meet” you on the Bay Area Food Bloggers listserve! Your site is stunning and I am so motivated to step mine up.

    Hope to meet you in person sometime soon.

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  • http://www.indianmusiclyrics.com/ irun @Indian Music Lyrics

    Beautiful pictures, lamb tagine is my favorite, thanks for the recipe, will try it this weekend.

  • cherryberry

    Cooking in clay pots is tricky but I’ve had clay pots for over 10 years without them cracking. They must be cured when new. Most need to be soaked in cold water for some hours, some require a slow simmer with water and some vinegar but MOST IMPORTANT is to treat them with love. Never put in dishwasher, always wash with warm soapy water and rinse with care, avoid hitting tap or sides of sink. Before cooking again rinse the bottom part with water. Don’t overheat and don’t let moisture dry completely while cooking.

  • cherryberry

    Cooking in clay pots is tricky but I’ve had clay pots for over 10 years without them cracking. They must be cured when new. Most need to be soaked in cold water for some hours, some require a slow simmer with water and some vinegar but MOST IMPORTANT is to treat them with love. Never put in dishwasher, always wash with warm soapy water and rinse with care, avoid hitting tap or sides of sink. Before cooking again rinse the bottom part with water. Don’t overheat and don’t let moisture dry completely while cooking.

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Thank you so much for writing and for the tips!

  • hanna Weber

    I have used this recipe multiple times with my Moroccan in-laws. It is a huge success and often requested! Such a lovely aroma and moorish flavor!